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Station Life in New Zealand

Letter VIII. Pleasant Days at Ilam

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Letter VIII. Pleasant Days at Ilam.

We leave this to-morrow for the station in the most extraordinary conveyance you ever saw. Imagine a flat tray with two low seats in it, perched on four very high wheels, quite innocent of any step or means of clambering in and out, and drawn, tandem-fashion, by two stout mares; one of which has a little foal by her side. The advantage of this vehicle is that it is very light, and holds a good deal of luggage. We hope to accomplish the distance—fifty miles— in a day, easily.

Although this is not my first visit to Ilam, I don’t think I have ever described it to you. The house is of wood, two storeys high, and came out from England! It is built on a brick foundation, which is quite unusual here. Inside, it is exactly like a most charming English house, and when I first stood in the drawing-room it was difficult to believe: that I was at the other end of the world. All the newest books, papers, and periodicals covered the tables, the newest music lay on the piano, whilst a profusion of English page 52 greenhouse flowers in Minton’s loveliest vases added to the illusion. The Avon winds through the grounds, which are very pretty, and are laid out in the English fashion; but in spite of the lawn with its croquet-hoops and sticks, and the beds of flowers in all their late summer beauty, there is a certain absence of the stiffness and trimness of English pleasure-grounds, which shows that you have escaped from the region of conventionalities. There are thick clumps of plantations, which have grown luxuriantly, and look as if they had always been there. A curve of the opposite bank is a dense mass of native flax bushes, with their tall spikes of red blossom filling the air with a scent of honey, and attracting all the bees in the neighbourhood. Ti-ti palms are dotted here and there, and give a foreign and tropical appearance to the whole. There is a large kitchen garden and orchard, with none of the restrictions of high walls and locked gates which fence your English peaches and apricots.

The following is our receipt for killing time at Ilam:—After breakfast, take the last Cornhill or Macmillan, put on a shady hat, and sit or saunter by the river-side under the trees, gathering any very tempting peach or apricot or plum or pear, until luncheon; same thing until five o’clock tea; then cross the river by a rustic bridge, ascend some turf steps to a large terrace-like meadow, sheltered from the north-west winds by a thick belt of firs, blue gums, and poplars, and play croquet on turf page 53 as level as a billiard-table until dinner. At these games the cockatoo always assists, making himself very busy, waddling after his mistress all over the field, and climbing up her mallet whenever he has an opportunity. “Dr. Lindley”—so called from his taste for pulling flowers to pieces—apparently for botanical purposes—is the tamest and most affectionate of birds, and I do not believe he ever bit any one in his life; he will allow himself to be pulled about, turned upside down, scratched under his wings, all with the greatest indifference, or rather with the most positive enjoyment. One evening I could not play croquet for laughing at his antics. He took a sudden dislike to a little rough terrier, and hunted him fairly off the ground at last, chasing him all about, barking at him, and digging his beak into the poor dog’s paw. But the “Doctor’s” best performance is when he imitates a hawk. He reserves this fine piece of acting until his mistress is feeding her poultry; then, when all the hens and chickens, turkeys, and pigeons are in the quiet enjoyment of their breakfast or supper, the peculiar shrill cry of a hawk is heard overhead, and the Doctor is seen circling in the air, uttering a scream occasionally. The fowls never find out that it is a hoax, but run to shelter, cackling in the greatest alarm—hens clucking loudly for their chicks, turkeys crouching under the bushes, the pigeons taking refuge in their house; as soon as the ground is quite clear, Cocky changes his wild note for peals of laughter from a high tree, and finally alighting on the top of a page 54 hen-coop filled with trembling chickens, remarks in a suffocated voice, “You’ll be the death of me.”

I must reverse the proverb about the ridiculous and the sublime, and finish my letter by telling you of Ilam’s chief outdoor charm: from all parts of the garden and grounds I can feast my eyes on the glorious chain of mountains which I have before told you of, and my bedroom window has a perfect panoramic view of them. I watch them under all their changes of tint, and find each new phase the most beautiful. In the very early morning I have often stood shivering at my window to see the noble outline gradually assuming shape, and finally standing out sharp and clear against a dazzling sky; then, as the sun rises, the softest rose-coloured and golden tints touch the highest peaks, the shadows deepening by the contrast. Before a “nor’-wester” the colours over these mountains and in the sky are quite indescribable; no one but Turner could venture upon such a mixture of pale sea-green with deep turquoise blue, purple with crimson and orange. One morning an arch-like appearance in the clouds over the furthest ranges was pointed out to me as the sure forerunner of a violent gale from the north-west, and the prognostic was fulfilled. It was formed of clouds of the deepest and richest colours; within its curve lay a bare expanse of a wonderful green tint, crossed by the snowy silhouette of the Southern Alps. A few hours afterwards the mountains were quite hidden by mist, and a furious gale of hot wind was shaking the house page 55 as if it must carry it off into the sky; it blew so continuously that the trees and shrubs never seemed to rise for a moment against it.

These hot winds affect infants and children a good deal, and my baby is not at all well. However, his doctor thinks the change to the station will set him all right again, so we are hurrying off much sooner than our kind friends here wish, and long before the little house in the hills can possibly be made comfortable, though F—— is working very hard to get things settled for us.